At Romeley, one gets two lost houses for the price of one. The early history of Romeley (or Romiley) in the extreme SW of the parish of Clowne, but often erroneously listed under Barlborough, is obscure to say the least, but the first we hear of a capatial mansion there is in 1455 when one on site was in the possession of Stephen atte Wode, (Wood), a member of the same Eckington family whose name later mutated into Sitwell, as of Renishaw.
A descendant, William Wood sold the estate in 1604 to William Routhe of Birley and Waleswood (now Wales) both just over the county line in Yorkshire. They seem to have rebuilt the house in coursed rubble of High Hazels Coal, quarried locally, of which the main surviving doorcase is carved from a single block. Unfortunately, this house was abandoned towards the end of the nineteenth century, having been described as an ‘ancient farm house’ since the mid-18th century, in favour of a new house built contiguously, of which more anon. No illustration of the old house survives, but the L-shaped surviving portion has two storeys over a high basement, suggesting a house of some pretension, the more so for Thomas Bulmer in 1895 recorded a lost first floor long gallery of some sixty feet, a four yard (12 foot) square rannel balk and chimney and a kitchen fireplace boasting a twelve foot wide cambered bressumer, the latter still in situ (or was when Mick Stanley and I visited in 1980).
The house under consideration today, however, is its successor, Romeley House, occasionally and confusingly also called Romeley Hall. This was built by Thomas Wright Bridgehouses, in Sheffield (1679-1741), who bought the estate from the heirs of Francis Routh of Brenley, Kent, whose father, Sir John, had left Yorkshire and had been financially hammered for loyalty to the King during the Civil War. This villa, built possibly as a place to which he could retire from the smoke and pollution of Georgian Sheffield, seems to have been erected immediately after his purchase in 1711. The need for a new house being that the Clayton family had a three-lives lease of the old hall and were still in occupation. In 1741 this new house passed to Wright’s nephew, Revd. Thomas Wright, who lived in the rectory at Birley, Yorkshire and did not use Romeley House, which fell into some disrepair by the 1780s. Thus in 1788 he sold house and estate to Daniel Thomas Hill. He was the well-heeled son of a London distiller, living near Aylesbury, Bucks., but had business interests locally, living at Chesterfield, where he died in 1811.
Daniel Hill clearly had no desire to live at Romeley either, so he let the new house and estate for life to Dr. Thomas Gisborne (1725-1806), a member of a prominent local dynasty, a noted physician, Fellow of St. John’s Cambridge and President of the Royal College of Physicians in 1791, 1794 and 1796 to 1803. He had also been appointed Physician in Ordinary to George III on the recommendation of Erasmus Darwin, FRS, made when the latter had been approached but was keen to avoid being appointed himself.1 Although a bachelor, Gisborne decided to put the house into good repair and to improve it as a fashionable country seat for himself and to improve the setting to create a modest Elysium around it.
The brick building he acquired was nothing if not architecturally quirky. It was of five closely- set bays facing south, with side elevations also of three bays, and boasted two storeys and attics. The main façade was notably arresting, rising from a prominent podium and approached by a full width set of stone steps with end and central balustrades.
The ground floor was enclosed by angle pilasters rising above the plat band into plinths (or chimneys), whilst at first floor level the façade rose at a slope in a series of reverse curves separated by steps to attic level where they ended against two further full height pilasters which enclosed the central three bays and all of the attic, forming a sort of giant shaped gable. The attic itself consisted of a single sash flanked by a pair of blind lights. The windows had stone lintels and those on the ground floor moulded brick labels beneath the sills, although the sashes one sees on the only view of it, drawn by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733-1794) in 1774, probably replaced stone mullion-and-transom cross windows.
There is a naive sophistication about this extraordinary provincial Baroque façade, and its impression on the viewer of a giant shaped pediment is very reminiscent of a group of south Yorkshire houses, one of them, Hellaby Hall, only some ten miles away at Maltby on the east edge of Rotherham, just north of Junction 32 of the M1. This was built on the same scale, with similarly shaped gable (albeit resting upon volutes) and banding, although its façade, of smooth local stone, is not broken up by odd pilasters as is Romeley’s. Another house, Grimethorpe Hall, just NE of Barnsley, is, like Romeley, in brick with stone dressings, and again of five bays. The pediment was once shaped but got simplified in a Georgian rebuild that led to the installation of sash windows. Both houses seem to lack the odd plasters, but in fact Grimethorpe does have attenuated ones to first floor level, flanking the entrance.
Both houses have lain derelict and at risk for decades, although the former has been rescued and is now a thriving hotel. Hellaby was built in 1692 by West India merchant Ralph Fretwell (a remote descendant of the Freschevilles of Staveley), whilst Grimethorpe dates to a similar period – at least between 1670 and 1713 , being the adult lifetime of its builder Robert Se(a)ton.
This trio probably owe their inspiration to Robert Trollope of York an architect who revelled in the provincial Baroque and who died in 1686 having designed a very similar but wider gabled façade for Sir Richard Graham at Norton Conyers Hall near Ripon in the late 1670s and who probably also built Knedlington Old Hall, with similar gables, for Stephen Arlush in the 1660s. It is with this group of buildings that the Wright family’s new Romeley Hall should be associated.
Grimm’s illustration, which turned up in a private collection in 2014, shows the house in an informal landscape with a gardener working in the foreground, and was probably painted for Thomas Wright perhaps to help promote the sale of the house. A letter by him, full of local gossip, survives from 1784 and mentions Gisborne as ‘my friend’ and describes him as one ‘who knows everything relative to himself.’
Thus when Gisborne took over, he decided to modernise his new house. He built a second two storey range with York sashes set in blind arcading, onto the service wing to enclose a rear courtyard, closing it off on the west with a wall enlivened by a ten-panel blind arcade. He reduced the windows on the west front but the major change was in replacing the charmingly quirky entrance front with a new façade in Palladian style.
He widened the centre section, breaking it forward, replacing the three close-set bays with a single wide one of tripartite sashes set in recessed segmental panels, echoed in the pedimented attic by a thermal or Diocletian (lunette) window. The side elements were altered to produce a façade of interlocking pediments in the manner of the churches in the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture of 1570, a conceit revived in Yorkshire and North Nottinghamshire by James Paine in the 1750s and also used on the Devonshire Hospital, Full Street, Derby by Joseph Pickford in 1777. What the original interior was like and what alterations Gisborne made to it is impossible to tell, as no evidence for it has survived, bar a mention of oak panelling and staircase, which may well refer to the house as first built.
Neither is there any record, needless to say, of the architect of these works, but from the late Bernard Pardoe’s Grimm-style watercolour, the effect might suggest a competent hand working to a tight budget, hence no doubt the astoundingly plain side elevations; the style is akin to that of William Lindley of Doncaster. Lindley was also linked to Revd. Christopher Alderson, garden designer and rector of Eckington, to whom alterations to the rectory have been attributed.
This association brings us to the landscape. It was described (at second hand, one suspects) as
‘…pleasantly situated…in the tastefully laid out pleasure grounds are two avenues of yew trees remarkable for their curious growth.’
Gisborne and Alderson were known to each other. Revd. Thomas Mason, who described Alderson to Queen Charlotte as his élève, wrote to Alderson about a visit he had made to Gisborne at Romeley. Also in Alderson’s circle was Daniel Hill’s son the Venerable Thomas Hill, later Archdeacon of Derby. Unfortunately, apart from vestiges of one of the avenues, nothing remains of either pleasure ground or landscape – nor, of course, house.
After Gisborne’s death at Romeley in 1806, the house was let by Archdeacon Hill, Godfrey Croft (1800-1873) being tenant from the 1840s to 1864. It was also occasionally used by Archdeacon Hill’s daughter Mary Elizabeth Sarah (1838-1921) who in 1857 married Revd. Alfred Olivier, vicar of Ashbourne 1876-78. The pair later moved to Derby, where their joint patrimony enabled them to found two new parishes, equipped by churches designed by Joseph Peacock in the rapidly expanding south of the town.
Alas, a brick and tile works by the entrance on the Woodthorpe-Clowne road, another brickworks to the south, the expansion of the Barlborough Colliery to the east and Woodhouse Lane colliery equally close to the north, soon began to render the house effectively uninhabitable, a situation compounded by the building of the MR Clowne branch across the house’s south lawn in the 1860s, effectively cutting the estate in two.
The house long derelict was cleared after the Great War, leaving only the vestiges of its Tudor predecessor decaying in the farmyard nearby. Mrs. Olivier died in 1921 when the Romeley estate was sold to the tenants.